Image of Senator Kamala Harris
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Pressing Issues

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Did Legacy Media Kill Kamala’s Campaign?


It didn't matter that Senator Harris was a strong candidate with a passionate base. The misogynoir of press coverage doomed her from the outset.



On December 19, 2019, six white presidential contenders will take the stage. Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, and Elizabeth Warren have, thus far, been the only ones to qualify for the sixth Democratic debate, hosted by PBS NewsHour and Politico in Los Angeles.

The only person of color who also qualified to be on that stage was Kamala Harris—that is until she dropped out of the race yesterday.

It hardly matters why Senator Harris ultimately halted her presidential bid—whether it was for a lack of money, or for issues emerging within her campaign. What matters is the playing field was uneven from the start. There is a saying a lot of Black children in America (and kids from marginalized groups) learn growing up, “You’re going to have to work twice as hard to get half as much of what white people get. This is exemplified by the stranglehold of white supremacy in America that installed Donald Trump into the Oval Office. Harris dropping out has been an insult to injury because we can still feel the sting of 2016, and the sexism that doomed Hillary Clinton—and will never forget the racism that hung over every second of Barack Obama’s presidency, as it does every second of our real American lives. Harris, with all of her accomplishments—Attorney General of California, the second Black women in the United States to become a senator, the third Black woman (and the only Indian-American woman) to run for president—and her significant work on issues like affordable health care, fixing a broken criminal-justice system, universal childcare, and a living wage—was never going to be president. We know that now. I’m heart-bruised to admit it, but in my gut, I always suspected that the media was never going to let a Black woman win.

Over the nearly 11 months of Harris’s campaign, we bore witness to an endless assault on her achievements, her character, and her campaign from legacy media—defined as “media that is considered “old,” such as radio, television, and especially newspapers.” In other words, a media that is overwhelmingly owned and operated by white cis males.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review, the editors of 135 of the country’s largest English language newspapers are 73 percent male; nine out of 10 are white. Data gathered by Women’s Media Center for their annual report, “The Status of Women in The U.S. Media 2019,” shows that men own 92.6 percent of the national commercial TV stations, 82.6 percent of the nation’s AM/FM radio stations, 69 percent of news wire bylines (AP and Reuters) are snagged by men, and across ABC, CBS and NBC men represent an average of 65 percent of the accredited journalists. The great majority of those men are white.

For those asking, “How much does the media really influence an election anyway?,” the answer is: indelibly, and in six specific ways according to Andra Brichacek, director of communications for the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Journalists choose who they’ll cover, “the first way journalists get involved in elections is by choosing which candidates to cover and how much. Those choices alone can have a huge effect on voter perceptions.”

According to FiveThirtyEight, there is a huge disparity in media time given to candidates. Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg have consistently garnered more media attention than the candidates of color, including Senator Harris, Senator Cory Booker, Julián Castro and Andrew Yang. Biden received a disproportionate amount of coverage each time vacillating between 43 percent and 74 percent.

When it comes to polling data, it does tell a story of where a race stands, but currently the media leans heavily on polls to create a narrative that becomes ‘self-perpetuating’ according to Brichacek. “The media flock to the front-runners. And the more coverage those candidates get, the higher they tend to climb in the polls—a dynamic that can turn into a self-perpetuating cycle.”

Despite this good advice from FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, “Try not give any one polling firm too much influence,” the media has been quick to build horse race narratives from every single swing, and from every single poll. “She rising!” “She’s collapsing!” This can itself effect polling, and fund-raising.

Since the 2010 Citizens United decision by SCOTUS which removed “limitations on corporate funding of independent political broadcasts” corporations can spend unlimited sums of money on political ads fundraising—a full-time job for any person running for public office.

Harris stated that she dropped out because her campaign, “simply doesn’t have the financial resources we need to continue.” According to Open Secrets, Senator Harris still has a little more than $10 million cash on hand, but that can’t compare to self-funded billionaires Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg. The former New York City mayor has already outspent the entire Democratic field on television ads last week by burning through $57 million in the ten days since he announced his bid, spending an average $5.7 million per day! Steyer, who has been running since July, has been positively frugal compared to Bloomberg spending an average of $363,636 a day, $60 million in total since announcing his bid in July. Obscene.

With numbers and narratives like these, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Kamala Harris, a senator and former Attorney General with a passionate base of supporters, still didn’t stand a real chance. Yes, Harris made AG William Barr almost perjure himself. Yes, Harris showed America what an ignoramus Brett Kavanaugh is. Yes, Harris made diet-Klan  Jeff Session so nervous he could barely contain his flop sweat during his hearing. That didn’t matter to legacy media because it decided it needed a foil. Hillary Clinton had worked so perfectly for them before! They could give Harris the same treatment but add in an additional dose of misogynoir. Even wading through post-mortem articles that the New York Times and Politico have been writing for months, Harris and her campaign were treated with confusion and disdain from a media where the majority does not resemble her. Or Senator Cory Booker, or Julián Castro. A media that has made little or no attempt to understand Harris, Booker, or Castro, their policies, or the communities they’re from or serve.

Legacy media made less of an attempt to actually understand or discuss their policies. Storybench, a news division of Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, published an analysis of 10,000 news articles from 28 outlets on 2020 Democratic candidates last month that discussed the lack of policy coverage by legacy media, stating, “Our topic analysis reveals that political coverage tracks with the ebbs and flows of scandals, viral moments and news items from accusations of Joe Biden’s inappropriate behavior towards women to President Trump’s phone call with Ukraine”

In other words, legacy media was focused on gossip and controversy, while subverting policy.

Which is exactly how legacy media conducted itself in 2016 when they chased one empty “her emails” scandal for another. “The various Clinton-related email scandals accounted for more sentences than all of Trump’s scandals combined” according to a Harvard study cited by Columbia Journalism Review, “In just six days, the New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.”

It’s clear that legacy media has not learned any lessons from 2016 (unless that lesson was “controversy and Authoritarian leadership is good for subscribership, clicks… and daddy needs a new beach house!”) Early in this election cycle, NBC political reporter Jonathan Allen tweeted a critique of Harris’s fund-raising “just” $12 million in the first quarter, compared to her white, male competitors. I had a telephone conversation with Allen after he wrote that tweet. It seemed he, and many other white male reports, hadn’t fully comprehended what a feat it was for a Black woman to raise $12 million in a country where 63 million people voted for a man who espouses racist and misogynist ideas daily. “I hadn’t thought about it like that,” Allen said.

Legacy media and its bias have much to blame for the demise of Harris’s campaign. Let’s face it: The majority of legacy media still doesn’t comprehend that the Black community and people of color are not monolithic, that we’re intersectional: disabled, LGBTQ, seniors, youth, non-binary. Legacy media certainly doesn’t understand the nuances of Black culture. Recall that, early in the election cycle, a reporter made fun of Harris’s Howard University AKA sorority sisters “screeching.” She didn’t realize that those “screeches” were called “the Skee Wee”—a greeting from AKAs.

Why is the press the only occupation explicitly protected in the U.S. Constitution? For the purposes of being a checks-and-balances system on our government, our elected officials, and informing the American constituency. It’s also supposed to understand the American constituency.

So, too, should the political bodies tasked with supporting the only candidates of color in this race. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and CEO Seema Nanda are not looking at the reality of the rapidly changing demographics of the party, nor all of the systemic oppressions the marginalized base faces, from media bias to voter suppression. The DNC needs to autopsy Harris’s campaign treatment and reexamine Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, which also centered Black voters and voters of color. They need to understand that putting white majority states Iowa and New Hampshire upfront in the primary means that legacy media will draft a narrative that centers the white majorities living in those states, while ignoring people of color.

I’m an American. I’m a Black, Latinx, Bi woman. I work in public policy. I’m a voting rights advocate. For years I’ve worked beside other Black women and women of color organizers helping to elect candidates, educate others on policy, and we always hope we’ll see candidates in office prioritizing our issues. We want candidates that don’t have to “guess” who we are or were “slow” to recognize critical issues facing our communities. We want candidates who are a part of marginalized communities, and understand the intersectionality within those communities.

I’m not naïve to the fact that Harris faced significant barriers in this race, and securing the nomination was going to be hard work from day one. Senator Harris knew that because she’s been knocking down barriers since her career began. But her presence mattered. Her inclusive policy mattered. She saw us, she understood us, and she listened to us. And now that she’s out of the race, we are all poorer for it.

It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.

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